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Some web sites refuse to offer content to connections which appear to them to be coming from certain countries (or all countries but one, or offer different content based on the apparent location of the viewer).

Due to the nature of the Internet, with any communication involving a string of devices, it's possible in various ways to not give location information and/or give incorrect location information. In fact, there are services that anonymize Internet use and represent the traffic as coming from some machine providing the service, which could be anywhere in the world. For example, the Opera web browser has a built-in VPN feature that does this.

Is there anything illegal about using this to view content that would otherwise be refused?

For specific example, a person currently in Canada trying to view content on the PBS web site.

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The situation is basically a mess.

  1. It depends on jurisdiction, and it may not be at all clear which jurisdictions apply if, for instance, a UK person accesses a US website via the Canadian point of presence of a VPN provider based in Switzerland.

  2. Anti-hacking laws usually ban "unauthorised" use. These laws were generally written in the 80s or 90s before the Web became a thing. In those days you had to log on to a computer before using it, so "authorised" had an easy to understand meaning. However these days your authorisation to access a web site may be restricted more by the T&Cs of the web site provider than by technical means. If you do something outside the T&Cs then in theory your use is "unauthorised".

In most parts of the world using a site outside the T&Cs is generally treated as a civil matter. By analogy, if a leisure facility allows people on to its premises it can't then have someone arrested for trespass merely because they broke a rule like "no running".

However in the USA the authorities have bought criminal cases against people who used web sites outside the T&Cs on this legal theory.

There may also be more specific national rules about geoblocking. For instance in the EU geoblocking between member states is banned, so if you evade a geoblock between EU members then that is legal regardless of what the T&Cs say.

So if your planned evasion of geoblocking depends on something in the USA you might want to think again. Otherwise you are probably OK, but you should check the laws and prosecution guidelines and practices of all the relevant jurisdictions just to be sure.

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It could be. Accessing any web page is subject to whatever the terms of use are for the page, and if those terms state that the page may only be accessed from within the US, then accessing the page from outside the US is a violation of the TOS (hence use is infringing): see 2.4(h) of the Netflix EULA. There are EU rules that override such terms, within the EU.

The usual way to circumvent technological location-restrictions (where the web page says "I'm sorry, I can't let you do that") is to use a VPN and pretend to be somewhere else. Use of a VPN is not per se illegal in most countries (there are exceptions), but using it to circumvent geo-blocking may be. Again returning to the point that the TOS may itself say "No you may not", the interesting question is what to conclude if there is no such statement, for example I did not see anything in the PBS TOS that restricts access to the US (I didn't look very deeply). Terms of service can't be secret: you can't be held to following rules that you cannot reasonably know of. If you attempt to access a page that uses un-announced geo-blocking technology and it informs you that you can't use the page because of your location, then you have effectively been put on notice that there is a rule. If you happen to be using a VPN and access an un-announced, (reasonably) undetectable geo-blocked site, that would not be a breach of the terms (because you have not been put on notice that location is a term of use).

  • The Netflix EULA URL seems to have changed to this, and the relevant section seems to now be 4.3: You may view Netflix content primarily within the country in which you have established your account and only in geographic locations where we offer our service and have licensed such content. – jrh Jun 21 at 16:18

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